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Wamena investigation: What the government is not telling us

Jakarta Post - October 28, 2019

Victor Mambor and Syofiardi Bachyul, Jayawijaya, Papua – In Wamena in Papua's Jayawijaya regency there is a customary belief that women and children are innocent, that's why the men have to protect them.

"Humi yukurugi wene inyokodek," said Dominikus Surabut, head of the customary council of La Pago. But if women and children become victims, he said, the men are going to fight in the afternoon and evening. "Inyawim hiam-hiam ninane uok...," Dominikus went on.

This belief played a role in the events that took place in Wamena on Sept. 23, a tragedy shrouded in mystery amid a communication blackout in the region.

According to statements from the government, at least 33 were killed in the violence, eight of them native Papuans. An armed rebel group – referred to as an "armed criminal group" by the police – was reportedly behind the atrocity. Thousands of people, both native Papuans and non-native residents, fled the town following the riot.

The police said the non-native Papuans had died in fire while some had sustained injuries from sharp weapons. The official statement said nothing about what had caused the death of the native Papuans.

On Oct. 2, security and terrorism researcher Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) published a piece on Lowy Institute website, saying that "nine Papuans also died, mostly stabbed by migrants trying to fend off the mob." Sidney told the Post on Oct. 23 that she had got the information from a hospital in Wamena.

The Jakarta Post and several journalists from Jayapura-based Jubi and Jakarta-based Tirto.id conducted an investigation in the field in Wamena in Jayawijaya from Oct. 3 to 10 and discovered what the government has failed to reveal.

One of the most important pieces of information is that more than eight native Papuans died that day and that they died of gunshot wounds allegedly inflicted by what locals call "security apparatus", a joint force of Indonesian Military and National Police personnel.

The National Police said there had been an exchange of fire between security officers and an "armed criminal group" that day. Cendrawasih Military Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Eko Daryanto echoed the police's statement.

The Post and other journalists talked to more than 30 witnesses in Wamena about what happened during the riot. They were native and non-native residents, including religious figures, restaurant workers, traders, students and activists who were at the location that day.

First death in Homhom

Witnesses said they first noticed a crowd numbering in the hundreds on Jl. Hom-Hom in Wamena at about 8 a.m. on Sept. 23. Some people gathered in front of Yudha Supermarket in Hom-Hom while others gathered nearby.

The protest turned violent after a young man, later identified as Kelion Tabuni, a sophomore at the Manado State University in North Sulawesi, was allegedly shot by security personnel in Hom-Hom at 8:30 a.m.

Kelion, who arrived in Wamena from Manado two weeks prior to his death, was standing among hundreds of people when he was shot. A number of people in the crowd wore high school uniforms, witnesses said. Locals living in the area said they did not recognize anyone in the crowd.

After Kelion was shot, people in his crowd carried his body while they were going on a rampage. They walked past a traders' area called Pikhe and along the road were kiosks selling gasoline in bottles and jerrycans for motorcyclists.

The mob stole fuel and burned down houses and stores on Jl. Pikhe. Witnesses said local residents had warned the people in the houses and stores, mostly non-native Papuans, to flee to save themselves from being burned alive. Pikhe became a place of heroic tales in which native Papuans helped hundreds of non-native residents.

One such person was Obet Mabel, who, together with other native residents, helped at least 58 families reach a safe place in the city center. Obet also said he did not recognize any of the rioters.

"The [non-native] Papuans then were brought to churches near a bridge in Pikhe," said Simet Jikwa, a pastor at the Protestant Wesaroma Church. His church, along with the Kibaid and Panorama churches, provided shelter to hundreds of scared non-native Papuans that day.

'I did not recognize a single face'

While some men carried away Kelion's body and others set stores and houses on fire on Jl. Pikhe, some of the crowd headed for a campus in the Hom-Hom area, STISIP Amal Ilmiah Yapis, and set classrooms on fire. They also burned other properties on Jl. Hom-Hom and some non-native Papuans died after become trapped inside burning buildings.

Several witnesses said they did not recognize the faces of arsonists in Hom-Hom. They noticed that some of them wore high school uniforms, but they did not know anyone among the crowd.

The National Police said last month that the perpetrators of the arson and manslaughter were "not from Wamena".

"We have asked [the National Police] to find out and investigate the allegation [that outside people mobilized the crowd]," National Commission for Human Rights chairman Taufan Damanik said in Jayapura.

He said the police had to explain how people moved and entered Wamena during the riot. "Where did they come from? How did they coordinate? They came from everywhere," he said.

Obeth Alua, a Wamena resident who was on Jl. Hom-Hom on that day, said he did not recognize any of the people who gathered in the area. He claimed that Wamena, the busiest district of Jayawijaya, was a small town, and he should have recognized at least one or two of the people there.

"They said they were there for an antiracism rally. I recognized not a single one of them. And then I saw two people got shot and fell down, one man and one woman," said Obeth, showing the Post where he stood that day and pointing to the location where he saw the shots.

Later, the Post confirmed that the man was Kelion Tabuni, but the Post could not confirm the female victim, who according to Obeth, was taken into the direction of Wesaput.

Jayawijaya Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Tonny Ananda said the student rally had been infiltrated by an armed group that led to "crossfire" between the armed group and the security forces.

"During the rally, there was another mob behind the mob, and behind them there was the armed group. They were involved in crossfire from Monday to Tuesday morning," said Tonny.

Up until this article was written, the government has never spoken about security forces opening fire at protesters.

They have, however, pointed fingers at the West Papua National Committee (KNPB), a self-determination activist group that has close affiliations to the pro-independence movement.

Tonny said people from the KNPB had spread a "hoax" about a racial statement from a teacher. He said most of the perpetrators of the riot came from outside Wamena district. The police, he said, had been investigating "the groups".


At the same time about 4 kilometers from Yudha Supermarket in Hom-Hom, students of PGRI high school on Jl. Bhayangkara in Wamena gathered at about 8 a.m. to protest against one of their teachers, Riris Theodora Panggabean. The students accused Riris of calling fellow student Anton Pahabol a "monkey" on Sept 18.

Michael Asso, a physical education teacher at PGRI, said the teachers had held a meeting on Sept. 21 to question Riris, but Riris denied she had made a racial statement on Sept. 18.

Debora Agapa, the deputy principal for student affairs, said nothing had happened at the school from Sept. 19 to 20.

On Sept. 21, however, students had damaged some school property. Heru, a cafe owner in Wamena, told the Post that his employee, a high school student at PGRI High School, had came home early, at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Heru had asked her and she had said one of her teachers had called a friend "monkey", and then the students had broken the windows and computers at the school office," she said. That evening, she left Wamena for her hometown in Yahukimo regency. Later on Monday, Michael said, someone trespassed onto the school ground and damaged a classroom.

Angry students

A teacher at another school, Kartini, told the Post that she had received a text before Monday about the rumor emanating from PGRI high school. She had heard the rumor through a WhatsApp message that called on other students to rally to protest the alleged racism on Monday.

She said not long after 8 a.m. at her school, SMK Yapis vocational high school – located next to the Jayawijaya regent's office – a crowd, some wearing high school uniforms, others not, threw stones at the school.

Another school, SMA 1 state senior high school in Wamena, was attacked. Three teachers, all native Papuans, told the Post that about 900 students were attending class to sit a test. Sometime after 8 a.m., hundreds of students from outside "swarmed like bees" and called on the students in the classroom to rally with them. They also threw stones at the windows, hurting some of the students.

Papua Governor Lukas Enembe told the Post on Oct. 1 that he had received reports about three junior high school students, native Papuans, who had been doused with gasoline and set on fire by the rioters because they refused to join a rally.

"Those who set the children on fire wore high school uniforms, and what they did was cruel," he said. Media reports said the student victims were from SMP 1 state junior high school in Wamena.

Students that look too old

On Monday morning, police officers arrived to meet the students at the high school, a teacher said. The officers tried to calm down the students, who were angry because they could not speak with Riris, and the police asked them to settle the matter at the Jayawijaya Police station.

So they walked to the police station, and along the way they called on other students to join them, some by force.

While the students walked to the regent's office, shops in Pikhe and Yapis campus in Hom-Hom had already been set on fire by the other crowd.

Fires were reported in many places, including at Potikelek, located south of Jl. Hom-Hom. Security personnel fired tear gas in Potikelek, witnesses said.

When students reached the regent's office, they gathered in the front yard to wait for the regent. Local journalist Naftali Pawika said he had received information that the regent was out of the office at the time to assess the situation in Hom-Hom.

When Regent John Banua Rouw arrived, the students delivered their demand that seven school mates be released.

"They also wanted no security forces in the regent's compound while they were there, and they did not allow anyone to take pictures," said Dominikus Surabut, the La Pago customary chief.

Naftali said when the regent was talking to the students, someone took pictures of the students, who became angry and chased after the person. But the man left the compound in a car.

"Not long after, while the students were still in commotion due to that man, the regent's office finance building, located at the very back of the compound, was on fire," he said.

Fire trucks came but the students blocked the trucks, because they did not want the firefighters to extinguish the fire. Tension flared up and the students at the front yard of the compound threw stones at the regent's office building. Chaos ensued and people ran away from the chaos.

"The fire grew bigger and, I don't know how, caught other buildings separated from the finance office building. At the end, only one building survived," he said.

At this time, native Papuan women and children fled the town for kampungs surrounding Wamena.

Chaos in Wouma

While fire was raging at the regent's office, some of the crowd headed toward the airport to set it on fire, but the security forces intercepted them with tear gas. So they instead went to Wouma, where chaos broke out.

At the same time, witnesses said another crowd began to gather on the fringe of town; they were people from kampungs who had heard rumors that their children who went to school in the city center had been shot by security forces and arrested by the police.

People said the fact that Papuan women and children had fled the town for kampungs had prompted the men in the kampungs head into town.

Many students in Wamena hail from other districts in rural Jayawijaya, a regency that is home to the famous Baliem Valley. They usually stay in rooming houses in Wamena, away from their parents, during the school week.

"We heard that our children had been arrested by police and some had been shot. We also heard the students wanted to go to the airport to burn it down," said Alex Asso, the elder brother of Yus Asso, one of the native Papuans who was shot dead in the riot.

Parents and family members of Wamena students left their villages and headed for Wamena but were stopped by security forces at the Wouma Bridge.

On the other side of the Wouma Bridge, the crowd at the regent's office had grown larger and angrier. Mus Mulyadi, a satay restaurant owner, said he saw men dressed in high school uniforms."Those who set the kiosks on fire were all men who did not look like students. One had a beard this long," he said, gesturing to indicate the length.

One witness, who requested anonymity, said security personnel had fired shots here. He was injured by one of the shots before he could reach the town.

The shots made the crowd even angrier and they set alight stores and kiosks in Wouma. Witnesses said more victims were killed here, because the mob did not bother to check whether there were people inside the buildings. Some non-native Papuans were also reportedly stabbed by members of the mob.

Data from the police and the Post's investigation show that at least 42 died because of the riot. Thousands of people, native and non-natives Papuans, fled Wamena, some flew out of the island and went back to their hometowns in places like West Sumatra and South Sulawesi.

The Post's investigation revealed many things that had not been published before. But still, some questions are left unanswered: Who were the crowd at Hom-Hom? Why were they there? Was any armed group involved as the police said? The dozens of witnesses did not mention seeing armed civilians.

Komnas HAM commissioner Taufan Damanik said the police and the Indonesian Military had to investigate what really happened there. "So, we don't miss any [facts]," said Taufan.

Governor Lukas said he believed the riot had been planned, not by residents of Wamena nor the Baliem Valley people. He believed the perpetrators pretended to be high school students. "This happened by design," he said. "But we don't know who, and it is difficult to prove."

Whether the riot happened by design or not, it has strained the relationship between the nonnative and native Papuans in Wamena. La Pago customary council chief Dominikus Surabut said in his apology to non-native Papuans that the situation took them by surprise and "was out of their control". He said they helped all those they could help that day, but he was sorry that they could not help all.

"Let's build [Wamena] together. We eat from the same plate, we sit side by side, building lives. I cannot prevent [non-natives] from leaving Wamena, but for you who come back, let's build Papua together, in particular Baliem. For native Papuans, it is our belief that when we say we are best friends, it is not only [empty] words," he said in a video interview with the Post on Oct. 4. "Before you shed your blood, we will shed ours first [to protect you].

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2019/10/28/wamena-investigation-what-the-government-did-not-tell-us.html